If you were an Auburn basketball fan during the Tony Barbee era (AKA the Auburn basketball Dark Age), then you truly know how low this program can stoop. To fully understand the heights the program has reached now, one must look at the miserable history that came before.
A Calipari protégé during his time at Memphis, Barbee came to The Plains following the 2010 season and in his four (four too many) seasons at Auburn, Barbee amassed a 49-75 record (.395) and a paltry 18-50 (.265) record in conference play.
Having the worst record of any Auburn basketball head coach with over 32 games in the program’s 113-year history, the condition of Auburn basketball seemed to be in a dire state, deep in an abyss of losing unlike a team that was a mainstay in the NCAA tournament in their 80’s heyday.
Enter: Bruce Pearl. Auburn’s current coach has been with the program since 2014 and although his first three seasons on The Plains weren’t exactly inspiring, Pearl had to reverse years of losing done by previous coaches and change the negative team culture that hung over the program like a dark cloud.
That’s exactly what Pearl did. In his first few years, Pearl got fans excited about basketball for the first time in about a decade, recruited at an impressively high level and at the very least, maintained competitiveness in a conference that was slowly moving out of the shadow of football and into its own as one of the best basketball conferences in the country.
Pearl’s breakout season at Auburn came in the 2017-18 season when seemingly out of nowhere, the Tigers went 26-8, won a share of the SEC regular season title and made the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003. And despite an embarrassing 31-point loss to Clemson in the second round, expectations for the 2019 season were sky-high.
Those expectations were toned down a bit when a trio of transfers, Mustapha Heron, DeSean Murray and Davion Mitchell announced they would leave the Auburn program. Regardless, Auburn returned a majority of its core from the previous year and entered the season ranked No. 11 in the AP Top 25.
Overall, the 2018-19 season was a bit of a roller coaster for the team. At times, the Tigers looked every bit of the top 10 team they were billed up to be. On the other hand, they also struggled mightily at times, losing games they likely would have won the year before.
Through 28 games, the Tigers sat at 18-10 and 7-7 in conference play. The team had just suffered a 27-point beatdown at the hands of Kentucky and had lost three of their last five games.
Chances for a second-straight NCAA Tournament appearance were becoming bleaker and bleaker for the Tigers. But, led by senior guard Bryce Brown, junior point guard Jared Harper and sophomore forward Chuma Okeke, Auburn rattled off four straight wins to end the regular season, including a victory over then fifth ranked Tennessee in the season finale.
That win streak continued into the SEC tournament as Auburn once again won four straight, this time in only four days, ending with a dominant 20-point win over Tennessee to win the programs first SEC tournament title since 1985.
Auburn was seeded as the No. 5 seed team in a Midwest region that featured blue-blood programs such as Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky, and although the Tigers entered the tournament as one of the hottest teams in the country, many experts expected Auburn to be knocked out in either the first or second round. This was especially true when considering the historic "12 vs. 5" upset pick and looking at Auburn’s first round opponent: a 30-win New Mexico State team that nearly ran through the WAC conference with an unblemished record.
The Tigers ended up defeating the Aggies by the slimmest of margins and with traditional powerhouse Kansas waiting for the Tigers in the Round of 32, it seemed like Bruce Pearl and Company might’ve been destined for another second-round exit.
To the surprise of many, Auburn came out and dominated the Jayhawks from start to finish, burying No. 4 seeded Kansas with a flurry of three-pointers and strong defense on their way to a 89-75 victory.
However, if you’re reading this, you probably don’t need me to explain how the tournament has gone for Auburn so far. Earning a reputation for dismantling blue-blood programs, the Tigers handily beat No. 1 seed UNC and defeated Kentucky (with assistant coach Tony Barbee on their staff), the same team that had beat them by 27 earlier in the season, in an overtime thriller to reach the first Final Four in program history.
The marvelous late-season coaching job that Pearl has done becomes even more impressive when considering that Chuma Okeke, arguably Auburn’s best post-presence, most versatile player and best NBA-prospect, went down late in the UNC game with a torn ACL, rendering him out for the rest of the season.
The Tigers don’t have any All-Americans on the roster (and even none among the 37 players that received honorable mention) and probably won’t have a first round pick in this upcoming NBA draft. But, what the Tigers do have is one of the best coaches in the country, one of the deadliest backcourts in the NCAA, a fast-paced “three and D” team and most importantly, a group of players with a whole lot of heart.
However this historic season may end for the Tigers, with Pearl at the helm, fans should expect the consistent greatness that is seen in programs like Kentucky, Kansas and Duke. As always, there will probably be bumps in the road along the way, some bigger than others, but it shouldn’t be, and in my opinion, isn’t crazy to think of Auburn as, at the very least, consistent conference contenders going forward.
Next year, Auburn will lose energetic seniors Horace Spencer and Malik Dunbar as well as the SEC’s No. 2 all-time leader in three-pointers in Bryce Brown. Juniors Austin Wiley and Jared Harper and sophomore Chuma Okeke all have a chance at an NBA future and may decide to leave early. But, if that trio decides to return to the Plains, Auburn's 2019-20 roster will once again, be loaded with underrated talent.
Along with the core it has already established, Auburn currently has five players committed in the Class of 2019 and according to ESPN, the Tigers recruiting class ranks as No. 14 in the nation.
The incoming class is headlined by 6-foot-6, 215-pound small forward Isaac Okoro out of Powder Spring, Georgia. Okoro, a consensus top-40 recruit and top-two player in the state of Georgia, is a fierce competitor on both sides of the floor. A mixture of strength and athleticism should allow the incoming freshman to contribute right away in Pearl’s system.
Auburn will also enlist a trio of four-star recruits in point guard Tyrell Jones, small forwards Jaylin Williams and Allen Flannigan as well as Okoro’s high school teammate, three-star big man Babatunde Akingbola, all of whom have a chance to carve out roles right away depending on who leaves in the offseason.
Five or six years ago, if you would have, as I watched Auburn fall to the bottom of the SEC once again, told me that in a few years, Auburn would be in the Final Four, I would’ve called you crazy.
Never in my wildest dreams would I ever thought that the Auburn Tigers would be a premier program in the SEC, one of the country’s most electric shooting teams in recent memory. Yet, here Auburn is, making their first Final Four appearance in team history with a chance to, with two more wins, win it all.
This year, the Tigers broke the SEC record for most three-pointers in a season. The team plays exciting, fast paced basketball which has led to highly touted recruits giving Auburn a chance in a field historically dominated by blue-blood programs like Kentucky.
Auburn basketball has far distanced themselves from their dark past and is now emerging as a top-tier program in undoubtedly one of the best conferences in college basketball. And while this year’s team is certainly special, don’t be surprised to see Auburn making tournament runs for the foreseeable future.
Why? Because Bruce Pearl is building something truly special here on The Plains.